What to expect from Tennessee's ringmasters, jugglers and clowns in '14 as the legislature rolls back into town 

The Circus Returns!

The Circus Returns!

With the next election a short 10 months away, state lawmakers are hoping to spend as little time as possible at Capitol Hill this spring so they can kick off the campaign season.

The Republican-led legislature plans to descend on Nashville Tuesday, Jan. 14, to draft new state policies and spending plans until what many expect to be mid-April — if not sooner.

Here's what the legislature has on its plate this year:

Budget. The legislature's chief duty is to approve a multibillion-dollar spending plan each year. The state is currently on a budget of $33.14 billion, with up to $15 billion coming from state coffers. Divide the yearly total, and it apportions almost $5,200 in government spending for each of the state's 6.4 million residents.

But cash has been tight lately. Lawmakers built their last budget assuming the state would collect about $123 million more than it actually has this year, according to state statistics through November. While revenues such as taxes on sales, franchise, excise, gas and business have been up from the year before, they are falling short of what lawmakers planned.

That shapes this legislative session as the toughest yet for Gov. Bill Haslam's budget. Built-in increases in the state's Medicaid program and education are eating up most of the new dollars, leaving little for lawmakers to play with as state agencies point to programs and projects they'd like to fund. State agencies offered the governor ways to cut 5 percent from each of their budgets, but Haslam said he plans to take a more "surgical" approach. He plans to lay out his budget plan Feb. 3, according to a spokesman.

Education. While some argue the state has pushed too hard too fast to change the landscape of Tennessee education — and others say it needs to keep that pedal to the floor — the issue will dominate this year's legislative session. Most of the ideas are repeats from last year as Republicans hope to pass bills that fell victim to GOP squabbles, starting with:

Vouchers. A push to open doors for parents to use taxpayer funds to send their children to private schools is poised to make a comeback. As of this writing, Gov. Bill Haslam is publicly undecided whether to retry his limited plan, offered to 5,000 low-income students at the state's worst schools. Part of the debate is over the program's size; the other part is whether to do it at all. Some Republicans want to add middle-income families to the mix, while others — namely House Speaker Beth Harwell — say they'd rather the state take a pass on the proposal.

Charter school authorizer. Republicans are expected to pass a bill giving the state power to approve new charter schools rejected by their local school boards. Born out of Metro Nashville Public Schools' high-profile fight over denying a specific charter school in 2012, the signature bill from House Speaker Harwell's office was shelved in the Senate in the final hours of last year's session, a victim of political gamesmanship. Now it only needs the upper chamber to take it up for a vote, and Lt. Gov. and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey — who torpedoed its chances the last time around — says he's happy to see the bill through.

Closing charters. After years of debate about the role of charter schools, the business community is backing a plan to require the state to automatically close charter schools falling in the bottom 5 percent of schools. The measure failed to get anywhere last year, but this time around, the state's charter school association is also on board with the idea.  

Common Core. Gov. Haslam is standing by new Common Core state standards guiding what skills students are supposed to take away each year. But some in his party — and some Democrats too — are digging in for a fight. Others dislike the annual PARCC exam that will replace the Tennessee Consolidated Assessment Program (TCAP) tests in 2015. Prepare for a showdown: Common Core divides the Republican legislature into two factions, "and neither one has all the facts, in my opinion," according to Ramsey, who says GOP business types contend the standards will produce a better workforce, while tea party types insist the program is "a communist plot to take over education." Resolving that difference "is going to be our biggest issue," he says — because as he puts it, "it's us against us, instead of us against them." There's no consensus what to do about the worries, although some point to addressing how data on Tennessee students is eventually used as a place to start.

Textbook bias. With debate about the new standards came complaints last year from conservative Republicans that textbooks the state approves are biased. Taking that one step further, they say the state's entire system for evaluating textbooks for school consumption is flawed. GOP speakers in both chambers appear open to reorganizing the state's commission for vetting textbooks and how they're appointed — mainly by making sure legislators have a say in who sits on that panel.

Teacher pay. Making Tennessee the fastest improving state for teacher salaries by the time he leaves office is Haslam's newest goal, and one that would require him to shift limited state funds to support higher teacher pay. Haslam is in no hurry to hit the gas on this between a tight budget and expectations he'll coast to a second term, however, so he may propose marginal improvements this year and wait to make bigger gains.

"Drive to 55." With fewer than one in three state residents having finished some sort of post-secondary school, Haslam is also trying to focus on higher education. His goal is for 55 percent of Tennesseans to have earned a college degree or certification by 2020. Whether this push will mean funneling more money to the state's colleges, proposing programs to help students finish school faster, or helping to ensure students need less remedial work, supporting this priority will be a key part of the governor's limited agenda.

Wine in supermarkets. After years of trying to convince the legislature to allow grocery stores to sell wine, the state might stand its best chance this year. A proposal allowing counties to hold a referendum that would let voters to decide whether they're OK with the idea is idling in the Senate. Republican leaders in both chambers say negotiations are going on behind the scenes to clarify what liquor stores can get out of the deal in order to get it through the House. Whether liquor stores can sell cigarettes and mixers, stay open on Sunday and such are among the issues on the table. Behind-the-scenes players are also working to resolve exactly how the referendum will work. "I'm not sure there's a hotter issue out there, really," says Ramsey, who along with Harwell says he supports the bill.

Hemp and medical marijuana. Strawberry Plains state Sen. Frank Niceley wants to legalize industrial hemp after Kentucky made the practice lawful last year. Calling it a cousin of marijuana, he says the plants could be a viable crop for farmers to grow and sell. Although Niceley says the issue should be a slam dunk in the legislature, fellow lawmakers chuckle when asked about its prospects. Also, Democrat Sherry Jones plans to propose medical marijuana legislation this year, although similar measures have traditionally languished in committees.

Guns in trunks. The legislature has tackled this issue two years in a row and thought they had it settled, but there's a snag some legislators want to patch up this year. The law makes it legal for handgun carry-permit holders to pack heat in vehicles parked on work property, but a state attorney general's opinion says that doesn't stop companies from firing employees for bringing their gun to work if it's against their policy. Ramsey, who shepherded the bill to safety last year, says he won't lead the pack in trying to fix the law now. But he and Harwell appear open to letting other legislators take a stab (or shot) at it.

Medicaid expansion. The governor is still mulling whether to expand the state's Medicaid program to cover an estimated 180,000 poor people. The problem is, he would have to find a way that both Republicans and the Obama administration would approve. Expect hospitals and business to pressure legislators and Haslam for this one, as they've begun to feel the pinch. Vanderbilt University Medical Center, for one, laid off several hundred people in the past year — and although they point to many reasons, they say one is the state not expanding Medicaid.

Pseudoephedrine. With Tennessee among the leading states in the nation for meth production, lawmakers plan to consider whether products such as Sudafed that contain meth's key ingredient should be available only by prescription. This year, 18 cities have made that requirement, although the Tennessee attorney general says only the state can push those drugs farther behind the counter. After years of what he describes as hesitance to punish the vast majority of Tennesseans for the actions of a relative few meth producers, Ramsey says he's now "very, very open to it." About two out of three people support requiring a doctor's prescription for the drug, according to a Vanderbilt University study last month — but the bill has staunch opposition from drug companies.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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